The Bush ‘cringe’ factor


First, Slo-Mo video revolutionized TV sports for America’s couch potatoes. Now it has brought the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat — and even more — to a wide, wide world of viewers of every international competition.

Since John Madden has a fear of flying, it has fallen to me to provide you with the running commentary for the world’s latest and most-watched Slo-Mo replay, a videotape from the latest fun and games in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Let’s go to the videotape: (begin ital) The American is on his feet! He pivots left _ it looks like a routine end-run, behind the backs of his unsuspecting international opponents. But wait! He stops behind the unsuspecting German. Maybe he has something up his sleeve _ hey, it’s Magic Fingers! He is giving her a quickie shoulder rub. She’s shocked! She grimaces and throws her hands in the air! Now he’s got that goofy look on his face again _ you know the one _ as he moves on. It happened so fast the refs never saw the American’s foul! But thanks to our Slo-Mo cam, you just saw it all! (end ital)

"Love Attack on Merkel," headlined the German newspaper Bild-Zeitung, calling it a "Texas One-Second Massage." Millions around the world downloaded, played and replayed the streamed video of President Bush’s unusual attempt at hands-on diplomacy, committed from the rear upon the unsuspecting shoulders of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, at the recent G-8 meeting of world leaders.

No one has made a case that Bush’s fond fondle of Merkel was appropriate. After all, not even Bill Clinton ever tried such a thing with his German counterpart (who, then again, was the very resistible Helmut Kohl). Why did he do it? Think back at Bush’s actions, comments and countenance at his meetings with world leaders. He always seems ill at ease. He has that look on his face (yes, the goofy one). It is as if he knows that although he is the elected leader of the world’s most powerful nation, when it comes to global issues, he is not up to the level of whomever he is meeting with.

That is why Bush has made a unique contribution to global summits: The Cringe Factor.

On virtually every occasion, he says or does something that makes you cringe. As in his meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, when Bush repeatedly seemed to be patronizingly desperate to show the world (or maybe just convince Putin) that he and Putin are great friends. So Bush kept it on a first-name basis _ calling Putin "Vladimir" _ while Putin kept it on a first-title basis _ calling Bush "President." For example, in Slovakia in February 2005, Bush called his counterpart "Vladimir" eight times. Only once, at the very end, did Putin respond in kind, saying stiffly: "As George said … " But let me say a word on Bush’s behalf. He is not even the U.S. record-holder for the Most Ignominious Cringe-Maker. Nor was his father (for the barf seen ’round the world, which landed all over the Japanese prime minister).

No, the record is held by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1968, LBJ greeted Israel’s ever-proper, ever-dapper Foreign Minister Abba Eban in the Oval Office thusly: "Well, well, I was just scratching my ass and thinking of little old Israel!" But that’s not the award winner. It came after the meeting, as they stood in the Oval Office doorway. Eban _ seeking to end on a high note _ asked Johnson for his private view of the three presidential candidates: Republican Richard Nixon, Democrat Hubert Humphrey and independent George Wallace. Johnson answered:

"Well, Nixon has it here (tapping his own head with his finger); but he doesn’t have it here (tapping over his heart). Wallace has got it here (tapping over his heart); but he doesn’t have it here (tapping his head). And Humphrey? He’s got it here (tapping his head) and he has it here (tapping over his heart). But he doesn’t have it here" _ and with that, LBJ reached out and grabbed the erudite Israeli by what might be euphemistically called his twin brothers. Eban emitted an ear-splitting squeal _ so at least their meeting ended on a high note.

Alas, LBJ’s antic was a private moment uncovered by TV cameras. So Bush has indeed just set a new world politics record for Public Cringe-Making.

Now, as our beleaguered president’s strategists search for any sort of victory anywhere, in the Middle East or even at home, they can be inspired by a new motivational slogan: Win one for the Groper.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)